Eye On The Sparro
By Adam Mattera
"I picked up a Swiss newspaper the other day and the headline was, 'Militant Gay Sam Sparro Comes to Town' or some shit," the singer says, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. "It's so stupid, but it says a lot about how people still think. You're either in the closet or you're a militant gay!"
For the record, Sparro is not the gay Malcolm X. He is, however, refreshingly frank about his position on everything from sexuality to religion and drugs. It's all there on his self-titled debut, which manages to include songs about a stripper ("Sally") and ecology ("Recycle It!") without ever losing its sense of humor or a damn good pop tune. And thanks in no small part to the cool electro-funk of his rather superb debut single, "Black and Gold" (think Gnarls Barkley cavorting with Daft Punk), the 25-year-old songsmith has in a few short months become a breakthrough star throughout Europe and is now ready to do the same in America. Whether America is ready for him is another thing.
"America is generally a very homophobic country, and it's not shy about it," says the Aussie-born, Los Angeles-based singer. "You turn on respected news sources like CNN and you see people quite comfortably talking about gay people like they're second-class citizens, and it's just accepted."
It's little surprise that, after a couple of decades of globe-hopping, Sam's record deal was signed in Great Britain, where the likes of Jake Shears and Rufus Wainwright are top 10 crossover stars. It took quite a trip for him to get there, from a tough boyhood in Australia to singing in the churches of east Los Angeles as a teenager (thanks to his musician father's gospel connections) to an initial trip to London at 17 ("I thought I was going to be a star overnight") and even a very brief spell as a go-go dancer in West Hollywood ("I was really broke!").
Now that he's being launched globally, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that certain industry figures might have advised Sam to keep his lips sealed about his sexuality for the sake of sales. Admirably, Sam would never entertain such a notion.
"It's ridiculous that I should be ashamed of who I am. I don't care whether or not it sells less records," he says. "I don't want to live in a world where I should be made to feel ashamed of who I am. And I don't want young people down the line to feel the same kind of feelings that I did growing up. The only way to stop that is to say 'Enough of the bullshit' -- just enough, already."
Sam has spoken before about how he was bullied during his school days in Sydney; it's a subject close to the surface. "I remember the taunts of 'fucking fag' and all that, of course," he recalls. "It's very, very isolating and shameful. You don't want to open up about it and explain what you're going through, because it's embarrassing."
The adult Sam Sparro has obviously learned from the sometimes harsh lessons of his past and is now insistent on telling the truth at all times, even if it does mean that certain quarters -- hello, Switzerland -- will put him in a box marked "gay pop star" and leave it at that.
"The other side of me being open about my sexuality is that it seems, for a lot of people, that's all they want to talk about," he notes. "Nobody says 'heterosexual singer Amy Winehouse.' They might say 'troubled crackhead singer' or whatnot — but as soon as you say you're gay, from then on it's gay this, gay that."
Sparro is funny, charming, and honest to a fault, retaining a very laid-back Australian take on life. He's prone to romanticizing the beach-and-shrimp-on-the-barbie lifestyle he left behind long ago. It's a quality he says he got from his grandmother, whom he credits as the first to encourage him toward the road to success.
"It was my grandparents that gave me the money to make my first demo. She was, for want of a better term, a total fag hag," he says with a laugh. "She was an actress and used to work in the theater, and was always trying to push me out of the closet as a teenager, God bless her."
What would she have made of Sam's dirty R&B groover "Cottonmouth," which has a chorus with lyrics sounding distinctly like —
" 'Cock in mouth'? No, you're definitely not the first to say that. And no, it never crossed my mind," Sparro says, again laughing. "Cottonmouth is actually the name of a snake, so it could be about a snake or a penis. You can take it any way you want."
Sparro's debut album, Sam Sparro, is out now on Universal Republic.